Times of crisis offer a space for individual reflection. They can promote new forms of self-awareness and on larger scales can even change societal values and priorities. COVID-19 seems likely to be a crisis that not only requires dramatic shifts in the way we live in the short term, it may also have lasting effects on the ways in which we engage in public life on local, national and international levels. COVID-19 is a universally binding experience, one which threatens humanity but in doing so unites us in a common fight. As a global issue, COVID-19 may therefore provide an opportunity for radical worldwide change both in attitude and behaviour. Not only will this prevent it from causing unnecessary harm, it may also to stop it happening again. We must ask ourselves what can we learn from this?
An Invisible Threat
I argue that pandemics such as COVID-19 truly call into question our relationship with the natural world. We continue to invade and destroy natural ecosystems. We trade both legally and illegally in wild animal products. This encroachment creates all the building blocks for further pandemics. We are all to blame for the dangerous ways we treat our planet. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres cited that on average 7 million hectares of forest are lost through deforestation each year. Our modern lifestyles are out of touch with nature. More often than not, they actively perpetuate its destruction. Although the exact numbers are debated, my research suggests that roughly 20% of the world’s population use 80% of the world’s resources. Our modern consumption habits, which are fuelled by extraction in poorer parts of the world maintain this inequality. These habits also push wildlife closer together, thereby disrupting ecosystems and increasing the risk of human contact with wild animals.
Viral pandemics dramatically bring to our attention to such world issues which are otherwise out of mind and out of sight. In our mundane daily lives, it is easy to forget that microorganisms exist all around us. Whilst COVID-19 foregrounds the dangerous consequences that viruses can have on the animal and human biosphere, these tiny organisms are essential to human life. Some microorganisms, such as our gut bacteria, play a vital role in shaping our physical and mental health. We still have a lot to learn about how this symbiotic relationship works. However, my research suggests that despite being imperceptible, we are deeply influenced by and in many ways at the mercy of such microorganisms. They too are tied to wider ecosystems and the natural environments that we admire and fantasize about so much.
The Link Between Pandemics and Resource Extraction
The Novel 2019 Coronavirus, which is part of a family of viruses including SARS and MERS, have been identified as originating from tropical environments. Researcher Zheng-li Shi, a Chinese scientist, was a leading voice in the discussion on this virus family afters the SARS outbreak. A 2005 paper states that this disease comes from bats. Further scientific studies in bat caves in China have shown that there are multiple coronavirus strains present in a single bat cave population. In fact, they noted that the SARS virus is “96% identical at the genome level to a bat coronavirus.”
Many questions remain unanswered about what viruses are out there and the true risk they pose. Significantly Zheng-li Shi explained that spill-over events are highly probable. The high risk of transmission is emphasized by the close vicinity of a village to this cave, just 1.1 km away. Now in 2020 this foreboding report has become a reality. David Quammen, author of the book Spillover – Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic notes that we are the root cause of this pandemic as “it may have started with a bat in a cave, but human activity set it loose.” He emphasizes how we must hold ourselves and our actions to account. We have cultivated the earth and re-made it to serve our own ends. This has consequences.
John Vidal, writing for the Guardian (UK), emphasizes that “zoonotic diseases are linked to environmental change and human behaviour.” Zoonotic refers to diseases that can spread from non-human to human subjects. Here, the emergent sub-discipline of ‘Planetary Health’ draws attention to the “visible connections between the wellbeing of humans, other living things and entire ecosystems.” Rather than living in harmony with nature, we are engaged in a persistence of consumption and destruction. As David Quammen notes “we disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
Environmental historian William Cronon notes that we have a deep fascination with nature. Yet our current trajectory shows no signs “of discovering what an ethical, sustainable and honourable human place in nature might actually look like.” As we degrade and downsize once abundant ecosystems, we create a more hostile natural world. Inequality also deprives people of adequate sources of protein. Combined with traditional values and sometimes with ignorance, wild animals are still consumed in many countries. Therefore, in spaces such as wet-markets there is a high risk of non-human to human transmission as these factors culminate in an increased exposure to dangerous viruses
The current crisis and beyond?
World Health Organisation social distancing measures are being taken seriously across the world. This worldwide fight against the COVID-19 pandemic is both literally and symbolically offering space for reflection. The global health crisis, which began in December 2019 in China is now in its fourth month and has become a pandemic. Europe is now the centre of the outbreak. Hardest hit at the moment is the Italian health system whilst rising cases in Spain, the U.K. and France are also cause for concern.
Clearly things need to change. Perhaps it is comforting that the extent of COVID-19 seems so vast and wide now that things will have to change soon, in some capacity at least. Karl Gruber argues that “viruses have been moving between organisms for millions of years.” They are very good at it. It is in fact their biological purpose. Nature is telling us something. I am advocating for an urgent movement that ensures we adjust our relationship with our environment. Left unchecked, human driven consumption and destruction of ecosystems for economic growth will only increase the chances of future pandemics. The odds are already high. If the price isn’t high enough already, the next outbreak could be even worse.
We all have a responsibility. In the short-term, to physically distance ourselves from others in our communities. To flatten the rate of infection and reduce pressure on our health systems. I argue that long-term change is, however, an essential part of fighting this pandemic. In my lifetime, and perhaps not since a time of world war, has a message been so clearly sent to human civilization. We can re-engage with the natural environment. To use a phrase coined by political ecologist Rob Nixon; we can stop this form of ‘slow violence.’
Harm perpetuated against the environment is only a form of self-harm, much like climate change. My research suggests that if we remain on our current trajectory we are putting the future of life as we know it at risk. The message is clear. Globally our society is vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19, but we don’t have to be. We can still change. We have all been given this opportunity. That gives me hope.